The Ethical Dilemma: I Loved Annie Hall. Should I Hate Woody Allen?

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Just a Star with Six Points: An acquaintance was wearing a necklace that prompted me to tell her I never realized she was Jewish. She looked puzzled and said she wasn’t, so I asked her why she was wearing a Jewish star. She claimed she had no idea that what she had on was a Star of David, she just bought it because it was pretty.

Although that seemed a bit hard to believe, maybe I’m wrong about how universally people recognize symbols like that. I also wonder whether it’s okay to wear them because you like how they look, without regard to what they symbolize.

—Sometimes a Star Is Just a Star?

Dear Sometimes,

This question is related to the argument that crosses on soldiers’ graves are just memorials but not specific to Christianity—and check out what AHA Executive Director Roy Speckhardt has to say about that!

It’s certainly possible your acquaintance really had no idea she was wearing a religious symbol. It would be interesting to know whether she continued to wear it after you enlightened her. It would also be interesting to know if anyone treated her differently because she was sporting that particular bauble (i.e, did she receive Hanukah cards in December?). But she’s entitled to do whatever she wants. No Jewish jihad will be declared upon her for misappropriating their symbol.

There are certain lovely designs that I gravitated toward until I learned they were variations of Christian crosses or Satanic symbols—and then I chose not to sport them no matter how pretty they were, because I didn’t want anyone to think I was supporting beliefs I don’t support. Many tourists must come home from exotic journeys with trinkets they picked up, oblivious to any sacred significance they may have. And when I see rappers wearing ginormous crosses while grabbing their crotches and shouting X-rated lyrics, I wonder exactly what those crosses convey to them or their fans. If it’s just pure bling, why is it so often a cross? (Sometimes it’s a dollar sign, which I find more comprehensible.)

Symbols get their meanings from people, and those meanings can vary with various situations. A pink triangle was used by Nazis to identify homosexuals, but it probably would not be recognized as such by most people today; but a swastika remains a widely unmistakable hate symbol. When I was a child, I hung out with a man who ran a Catholic gift shop in my grandparents’ building. I’d string rosaries around my neck and dance around, thinking they were simply sparkly jewelry. The man (who later became a priest) just told me to cool it when customers (or my Jewish grandparents) entered the shop. I also used to wear a beloved family heirloom, which happened to be a diamond ring, on the third finger of my left hand. Then I learned that a man I liked was going to ask me out until he noticed it and assumed I was engaged. It switched to my right hand in a heartbeat.

People are free to wear whatever they want (as long as it’s not illegal or against the rules where they are). They just have to accept that, intentionally or not, some items make statements, and those statements can have consequences. Let the wearer beware.

Boycotting Bad Actors: Recently there was a new flare-up of the child molestation case against Woody Allen, and some have advocated boycotting his films and denying honors to his work (including to the actors in his films nominated for awards). Is that the right thing to do?

—But I Really Love Annie Hall

Dear Annie,

I’m not going to get into the debate over whether Dylan Farrow’s accusations against Woody Allen are true or not (and, as Ashley Jordan points out in her article about rape culture, even saying “we don’t know the truth” can be problematic). But for the sake of discussion, let’s say that we have incontrovertible reason to believe her. Do we then “punish” Mr. Allen by shunning his work and everyone involved in it, even though they are innocent of the crime? Does that help the victim? Is there a statute of limitations for a decades-past crime? Do we also have a duty to investigate the ethics of everyone whose films we watch, books we read, music we listen to, etc.? A bit of digging will reveal many great artists abused their spouses, drank away their children’s inheritances, were cruel to animals, never tipped, sympathized with unsympathetic political groups, etc. Does that invalidate their art? If so, we may need to close a lot of theaters, museums and libraries.

Similarly, before we patronize a business, do we need to probe the attitudes of its owner? When the news broke about the Chick-fil-A founder opposing homosexuality, I was sorry I had never sampled their fare, since the ensuing publicity sang the praises of their sandwiches. But now I couldn’t in good conscience head to the nearest location and see for myself if it’s any good, because I’d prefer not to knowingly support a business that preaches discrimination on Biblical grounds. But I don’t think the company should be barred without legal grounds from opening a shop in my neighborhood (where I expect business would be unprofitably sparse, given the competition and the liberal population).

In most cases, there are laws in place against crimes such as child abuse and discrimination, and our society should ensure they are applied and enforced (and changed if they are inadequate). But once people are acquitted or legally compliant, unless you have evidence that the judgment was in error (O.J., I’m looking at you), they should be allowed to go about their business. As always, you as an individual are free to partake of their products and services—or not—as you see fit. (And by the way, Woody Allen’s new show, Bullets Over Broadway, The Musical is absolutely fabulous.)